Tuesday 17 February 2009

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont
Stars: Charles King, Bessie Love and Anita Page

Back in the days when Cedric Gibbons was the only art director on MGM films, The Broadway Melody became the first film with sound to win Best Picture Oscar. It's hardly surprising to find that once pictures picked up sound, they didn't just focus on people talking in stagebound dramas, they went whole hog into the world of the musical. This one is a little clunky and it pales in comparison to later Best Picture winners but it's not a bad film really and seems to have set the stage for much of what followed later, not just to the Warner Brothers musicals of the thirties but onward from there.

We begin with a Broadway songwriter and a sister act from back west. The songwriter is Eddie Kearns, who thinks he's a big shot but is really just an up and coming name, singing his own songs in Francis Zanfield revues. Yes, that's an obvious take on Florenz Ziegfield, about as obvious as it gets, as surely as Jock Warriner is a take on Jack Warner. The sister act are Hank and Queenie Mahoney, who are successful on the small town circuit but find themselves out of their depth on Broadway. The connection is that Eddie and Hank are a couple, so presumably Eddie merely found his way to Broadway first and it just took a while for the girls to catch up.

He gets them into a Zanfield show, but not everything goes according to plan. Anyone who's watched at least one early Hollywood musical knows what went on without even seeing it: the sabotaged audition, a quick catfight, the snap judgement from the man in charge, the accidental second chance and everything else, all the way down to the flaming gay costumer. Now Hank is the one with the brain, who has run their business all along, and she's played by Bessie Love, who is gorgeous with a face full of character. However it's her sister Queenie that everyone falls in love with, and she's played by Anita Page, whose death last year at 98 severed possibly our last direct connection back to this era.

The girls are a great couple when they arrive, but it doesn't take too long for everything to go sour. Hank stays on the straight and narrow, waiting for Eddie to propose and trying to stay in work. Queenie finds her way to the clouds though, because the rich and powerful Jock Warriner sets his sights on her. That causes no end of friction but what's worse is that Eddie falls for her too. I don't care too much for Charles King's portrayal of Eddie Kearns, though he fits the low down part well. Anita Page is excellent as Queenie though she's not a patch on Bessie Love as Hank. The best acting in this film comes when Hank realises that Eddie isn't hers and that's the closest thing to really Oscar worthy anywhere in the whole picture.

Bessie Love, the stage name of Juanita Horton, is a highly underrated name in cinema, unjustly forgotten today. Her first role was as far back as 1915 and she had a decent part in something as important as D W Griffith's Intolerance, Griffith having given her her stage name. Yet seventy or so films into her career, when the industry switched to sound, she was as natural in the new order as she was in the old. For some reason, even an Oscar nomination for her work here didn't keep her career on the up. By 1931 her star had waned and sadly her roles became fewer and less important, including a lot of bit parts in major films from The Barefoot Contessa and On Her Majesty's Secret Service to Ragtime and Reds. Watching The Broadway Melody makes me wonder how that could have happened. It was a Best Picture winner and she's by far the best thing about it.

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